Updated: May 24, 2013
This is a very bold, possibly fanboyish statement, and you might be inclined to ignore this article. However, I have been mulling this article for a while now, wondering if I could actually write. Summarizing twenty plus years of one's gaming experience into a single piece with just five top titles is quite an intellectual challenge. You have to go through your memory banks and normalize the sensations and thrills you had back then, and never forget the circumstances you played these games. Your first 256-color game, must be something, eh?
Well, I will try to do that. Of course, since I cannot contain myself, I will mention a few runner up titles, which would enter the list if it had more slots. But we will mostly focus on the five best, the games that changed my character and the way of thinking, affected my anatomy, and made me spend years playing them. We will check the top five games that made the revolution, that changed the industry, and the world as we see it.
Overall time play definitely does not count. As a child, you have more free time to play, since you need not handle house chores, work or do anything meaningful, at that. So if you had time for 10 hours/day of gameplay at 14, if you can manage as little as 3 when you're 34, then you're probably winning. Then, multiplayer games tend to be more engaging over time. Once you have completed a singleplayer campaign, you probably will not be trying it that often again, whereas online multiplayer matches have an element of unpredictability that can draw you in virtually indefinitely.
Another element is definitely the graphics. You cannot compare DOS titles with modern games on the premise of what they can do. Instead, the one thing that counts is how the game engine makes you feel, regardless of when it was made and what it could offer. Naturally, nostalgia has its own power of corruption, and people tend to look back at old, familiar things favorably. Your criticism grows as you age, especially when you handle topics and materials that you've tried before.
Playability. This one is the most important bit, I think. Looking back at my childhood years, I can name tons of great games that I played for years and years. But I don't see myself playing them again. Instead, their sweet memory remains. Hence, such titles probably do not constitute as the best games, but only extremely good ones. Long story short, my criteria will mostly revolve around the power of influence, realism and emotional engagement that the listed titles invoked in my brain. Now, let's check the games.
F-16 Combat Pilot
This is probably the most realistic combat flight simulator created in the olden era. I got the game back in 1989, and it came in a black box, with two 5.25" single-density floppies, plus a manual. Back then, the anti-cheat mechanism was simple. Before any mission began, you had to enter a word code to get your game going, and it would refer to a certain page, certain paragraph in the manual. The only missions you could play without these were the free flight training without any weapons and the landing.
The game box had the scenes displayed in 16 colors, but my version was only 4 colors. In fact, I never got the game to run with more than 4 colors, no matter what beautiful online tutorials or printed magazines showed. Atari, Sega, Commodore, and other ports probably had all these, but not my PC version. In theory, you also had helicopters, as a Mi-24 was showcased on the cover, and you could destroy bridges with your bombs, but these didn't quite work either. Later on I came across the EGA version, but it would not accept my manual passwords. Still, F-16 was the best simulator I ever played.
It was hard. Really hard. You could not play it without a joystick. Just learning how to land took me some three months. The game was brutally realistic. There was no time acceleration. You could ruin your landing gear and then you might try to land on your belly, which I've never managed. You could die from the lack of oxygen above 8,000 feet if your air supply system got damaged. Ejections were tricky and not always worked. I never managed to shoot down an enemy airplane with the M61 gun, as the MiGs were more maneuverable in tight turns. You could collide with friendlies and enemy fighters, too.
Before you could become a squad commander, you had to complete five unique mission types, including interception, interdiction, ground attack, tank busting, and reconnaissance. Few simulators force you to hook up an ATARS and take pictures of enemy installation from 500 feet, but this game surely did. Once you did these five missions, you would be able to fight campaigns, and that meant commanding another five aircraft. You would plot attack routes for them, and begin flying your own missions, having to carefully choose what targets to attack. You would normally send your planes against impeding enemy tanks near your bases, then later on, engage their factories, refineries and SAM sites. If you landed on an enemy strip, you would be considered a defector. If you landed on your own forward runway, you might not have all the supplies needed to fix your damaged warbird. Any death would permanently erase your combat record, forcing you to start over.
The game was mind blowing for its 600KB of data. You could carry LANTIRN pods to illuminate targets for your Maverick missiles. You could carry jettisonable drop tanks to extend your range. Air speed varied with altitude. Night missions, cloud banks, side winds, equipment failures, realistic radar modes, navigation using a top-down topography map, blackouts, redouts, internal view only. This game had it all. Unlike so many others that let you step out of your plane and see how lovely it looked from outside, in F-16 Combat Pilot you were restricted to looking back over your shoulders; only the top look was missing. Did I mention ILS landing? Taxiing to hangar to complete your missions unless your engine was dead or were out of fuel and gliding to land, chased by enemy planes? The fact your mission would resume with enemy fighters circling the airfield and waiting to prey upon you?
Unlike most DOS titles, which were CPU-timed, F-16 never had such a problem. And while most games required turning off turbo on later hardware, like 486, this awesome simulator had no issues even on Pentium. The one thing I have never managed to accomplish back in those days was the Serial multiplayer. I did not have two computers I could hook up for a joint dogfight session. Then, one day I discovered DOSBox, and successfully staged a two-computer, two-player fight using Serial emulation, nineteen years after I acquired the game.
I have probably spent two years net time playing this simulator, and I still occasionally do. Now here's a challenge for you all out there. I used to have the EGA version, but it never quite worked as planned. If anyone has a legal copy of the game in a 16-color port, I will gladly buy it from you. Or accept it as a gift, of course. If you manage to send me the game, or practical instructions how to achieve this, you will get free advertising on Dedoimedo. I'm dead serious. Anyhow, this is truly a remarkable title, and like so many ultra-realistic games, it never got the spotlight it deserved.
Transport Tycoon Deluxe (and family)
Here's another awesome game. It starts simple enough - build your own transport infrastructure, spanning across one hundred years of enterprise. Back then, in 1994, who would have thought that a legend was in the making when you laid down your first segments of a railway track in 2D isometric view. Fast forward almost two decades, this title remains the loved darling of the transport simulation, the baseline against which all other games of this types are calibrated.Like so many other classics, TTD has been revived as OpenTTD. This modern game port is continuously being developed. Recently, it has reached the stage where it no longer requires the original graphics and sound files to play the game, and you can use the new sets instead. Then, there's a 32-bit high-quality graphics port in the making, so the awesomeness abides, and is expected to grow exponentially. I've written two very extensive reviews, so might want to read them both, if you please.
Quoting myself so eloquently, OpenTTD simply remains the best urban planning and transport game, by a lightyear. The interface is simple, so it does not steal away your focus, yet it's pleasant enough to use. Traffic management can be dead easy or you can turn it into a logistics PhD if you want. There's no one way about building your infrastructure, even if you play the same scenario over and over. You will always find new, better, more elegant ways of chaining your industries together. Custom mods make the possibilities endless.
Play on your own, against bots, online, you choose. There are many levels of difficulty you can setup, starting with vehicle running cost and maintenance cycles, breakdowns, accidents, disasters, subsidiary multiplier, local council penalties and bribes, and more. The game can be tweaked more than a typical Linux distribution. Best of all, nothing is a must. If you don't want to fiddle with anything, just start a map and enjoy. On the other hand, if you're looking into a realistic simulation of transport management, you can crank it up to impossible.
Much like F-16, I spent hundreds and thousands of hours building my perfect empire of trains, ships and planes, and still keep on doing that. If anything, OpenTTD removes some of the limitations of the original games, improves performance when tons of vehicles are added to the map, plus you get additional features, buildings, transportation types, and other cool features, which only make it even more fun and engaging that it ever was. And while sequels usually fail to deliver, OpenTTD is in every sense of the word a remarkable masterpiece.
UFO: Enemy Unknown
Until DayZ, the free zombie mod for ArmA II, UFO was the most fright-engaging game I have played. What it did was, it introduced dread and chill and suspense through the clever use of soft, quiet panic, terrifying music and elements of uncertainty. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing explicit. It did not try to splatter meat onto your screen, so you would jump at shadows in dark corners. It simply didn't show you what you expected to be there, and let your own mind work the scary details for yourself, and that's the best kind of entertainment.
A testimony to the eternal status if this game is the fact it is still being played worldwide in its pure DOS form, that it has been modded, had numerous spinoffs, and finally, a complete remake in the true spirit of the original, with only the new, modern graphics to highlight the setting. It has been called the best game of the last century for a reason. I tend to agree, and you can surely get more insight from my review some time ago. Yes, I do still occasionally play the game, savoring its simple, stark terror.
Real-time strategy is one of my favorite genres. The fact you build from scratch has held me captive since my first encounter with Dune 2 and Warcraft. While many hold a dear piece of my heart, it is the Roman-setting Caesar III that stands out as simply the best offering of them all. You know you're in for some serious stuff when there's no difficulty setting in the game options. 0_o, as they say in Albania. And there it begins, the race for perfection.
What you need to do in Caesar III is very simple - build awesome cities, while fighting budget, corruption, natural disaster, finicky gods, enemies of the empire, and then some. Well, it does get more complicated. You will also have to please your own emperor and send him gifts, maintaining good health, sanitation, food distribution, law, order, and entertainment in your city, keep everyone happy, make sure that you have a solid industry to support your growing province, that you tax your citizens, and that education is not neglected. Combine it all, set it somewhere in the vast Roman empire, and the best kind of fun comes your way.
Your ultimate goal is to manage such high levels of quality and desirability that you nurture the patrician class in your city, who will then build beautiful villas. If you do everything perfectly, and that means four types of food, education, and entertainment, large temples for all five of your gods, plus the oracle, an excellent health, peace and beauty record, two types of wine, and some extras, you will eventually see tiny mud huts transform into beautiful, stunning estates. But in between, you will spit blood and sweat, and you will spend months trying to achieve that perfection. While most other real-time strategies do give you some leeway here and there, Caesar III is brutal and unforgiving. You will have limited resources, you will be affected by raiders and weathers, your gods will get angry, and houses will crumble and burn if your engineers and prefects do not do their job properly.
The only other city-building games that comes even close to Caesar III is SimCity 4, but more about that later. For me, this title remains the ultimate in god-like simulations happening in real-time, what we call the real-time strategy, and it could easily replace some of the fancier university courses that teach economy. I often play this game a whole decade and and a half since it was unleashed upon the world, and with the advent of the compatibility mode in Windows 7, I do not even have to use virtual machines for that. Bloody great.
What makes Operation Flashpoint so much different from all other first person shooters is that it was designed by a bunch of Czechs who all served in a proper Soviet style army. End result? Their game is not a Hollywood shooter for children, it's a serious simulation for adults.
Once you've gone Czech, you can never go back - that's my motto. If you have enough testicles to play this game, you will curse yourself forever. No first person shooter will ever be the same. You can surely play them and enjoy them, but any stab at would-be realism will be met with utter scorn on your behalf. Take Call of Duty, for example. Total nonsense. Lovely and entertaining, but it's about as realistic as any blockbuster movie.
Operation Flashpoint may have been released a decade back, but it's still fresh and relevant. It's still being actively played by real men out there, like myself. Its successor, ArmA II, while a great game itself, cannot truly replace the original awesomeness. Flashpoint revolutionized the game industry by offering virtually endless maps, with genuine air and armor support, the concept of combined arms being unknown at that time in other, similar games. You ended up fighting hour-long matches without savepoints, with tens and hundreds of human and AI players all around. Speaking of bots, they showed initiative, guts, cunning. They would run around and encircle you, or retreat when overwhelmed. They would call their own support, and then you would be in some serious cacky. You had satchels, mines, mortars, and you had to use them to win battles. There was no stupid bunnyhopping, no solo action. If you tried any of those, you died.
For me, this is the holy grail of action gaming, the one true FPS, and I use it as the standard by which I measure all other games. No matter how much the technology has advanced since, no other game title outside the Bohemia Interactive house has come even remotely close. Not one. It's a game from another universe.
These are honorable mentions - but be mentioned they must.
1942: Pacific Air War
This is another awesome DOS-era simulator. It was realistic, complex and fun. You fought your campaigns as either a US Navy or a Japanese Navy pilot, choosing between fighter, dive bomber and torpedo shooting careers. Later on, the expansion pack introduced new planes and army pilot careers. You could also fight historical battles in the carrier mode. Well, you can definitely read more in my review. Plus it comes with some neat videos of me trying to shoot down enemy planes.
Leisure Suite Larry
May I quote myself again? Larry is a 40 year old virgin. He wants to score. That's about it. Now, the more astute of you may notice that there's been a great movie called The 40 Year Old Virgin. Damn it, Sherlock. But never mind that.
Larry - or rather you - have two hours to complete the game. If you don't, Larry will commit suicide. You will be able to reset the time counter if you have sex with a prostitute, but you may also get herpes if you don't happen to buy a condom. Yes, the year was 1987 and AIDS was more than just a chronic disease back then. In the game, if you happen to have sex without rubber, you shall promptly die. If you do use a goatskin sock, you will have scored, but then there's the moral question of losing virginity to a woman of questionable virtue.
An awesome modern city builder, almost as good as Caesar III. This one has it all, too, but most of all, it requires patience. It took me three long years to fully and finally complete my 4.5-million San Francisco area, with its 68 districts and realistic industry, housing and transportation infrastructure. Enough babbling, do read the reviews.
GTA: Vice City
I think I've said all I had to say in my awesome review.
Less honorable but still honorable mentions
And without screenshots - or at least only a few - let us not forget the following horde. This bunch of games would enter the list probably in spot 10 and above, but still they are all great, fun, addictive, and definitely worth your money, just not good enough to stand among the giants. So what we have here?
Prince of Persia, for being ultra-cool and stylish; Golden Axe - I still remember playing it on an XT machine with lousy CGA graphics, and it would take 10 full minutes for the dwarf's fire magic, which kind of scrolled across the screen right to left and back, to finish; Shogun: Total War and Age of Empires II, and I probably invested a year of my life playing them, each; Little Big Adventure, and it's a sweet, sweet game; Alone in the Dark 2, damn was it frightening; Civilization II was the only worthy candidate in the franchise; Warcraft, the first one, that was a keeper. And I guess that's enough for this review. Have to draw a line somewhere.
There you go, that's my list. You may try to disagree, bu I feel you will find it quite hard to reject this compilation of greatness, stretching all the way back to late 80s. The finalist come from all decades in between, with a large portion reserved to DOS games. Why, you may wonder? Because once upon a time, it wasn't only about money.
For me, the best games out there offer uncompromising quality, realism and difficulty that does not try to cater to your simple mind and simple needs. What developers did was make sure they enjoyed their own work, and damn the rest. That's how legends are made. Through toughness. Charles Bronson didn't get to be the tough guy of the Hollywood by smiling a lot in his movies. And so, my best of the best. I honestly doubt that anything will ever change, but let's revisit the topic in a decade or so, and see what gives. Your comments are welcome.